If you blur your eyes for a moment, you’re in a different world: the world of impossible beauty (angels) and unfortunately conceivable horror (the demons). There’s so much gold that it creates its own pattern in the negative spaces. Or should I say positive spaces? Heaven seems more real than earth.
You learn to recognize the angels quickly. Michael tends to have black wings and red shoes. Gabriel has the lily, and the other one is Raphael.
There are other angels as well. This memorial, composed of padlocks and silk, holds the names of women, gay and trans people murdered during domestic abuse.
Now on to the demons, and the in-betweens.
I found the coffin set in a wall, surmounted by scenes of damnation, in Santa Croce. If they couldn’t get piety, apparently horror would do fine.
I do like the in-betweens. Play the game like you did as a child: if only I were strong as a lion, could fly, could get rid of my enemies… and you get this Etruscan manticore… or is it a gryphon?
And now for some liminal self portraits, to add to the spooky ambience of October. Sometimes I did feel that I was the ghostly visitor, and the past was the living thing. Suzanne
God is in the details. Surrounded by so many enormous, monumental works of religion, art, culture, and architecture, I want to take time to dwell on the small and particular in my days.
I decided that I would eat my main meal midday, and that I would only eat in places I felt comfortable. Because I’m traveling by myself, the comfort level of the cafes were paramount. Did they smile? I also settled on never eating at a place that didn’t offer a changing daily menu written on a chalkboard, with no actual menus. This means the food is generally always fresh, depending on what the market offered in the morning. It also means I don’t have to deal with much choice: one to four pastas and one to three changing main dishes. This is how the Florentines tend to eat, and they eat early, from around 12:30 on. If you don’t order the pasta, you can get a main plate, generally meat and veggies or all veggies, a classic protein/vegetable dish. A good lunch cafe will run out of the most desirable “secondi piatti” and scratch it off the board, so I’ve learned to go early. My main cafe refuses to speak English at all to me, to help me learn Italian.
I walk everywhere, so I can’t speak to public transportation. I wear walking boots, over the ankle, all day. They have saved me many times on the uneven, ancient cobblestones and in the needed traffic dodges. Florence is now fairly traffic free in the middle, but you still need to be on your toes walking down ancient alleys.
I avoided tourist places and found three cafes that I liked. In the evenings, I cook at home in the apartment and read, write or sketch, after a walk in the silky Florentine early evening. So I have not done a food tour. I buy premade cooked veggies and food at the supermarket and heat them up on my little induction stove surface in the apartment. The food cooks but the pan doesn’t get hot. Strange!
Dealing with daily life while not knowing the language let you know that you are a little bit stupid all the time. You’re the outsider. It’s humbling. I think that’s why the classic pilgrimage was to a foreign land through unknown places, languages and customs. The humility, or humiliation in some cases, leads you to pray a lot.
Learning how to do daily life in a strange land leads you into places you normally don’t see. The apartment dwellers take out their own trash and recycling to well-organized, labeled city bins, often blocks away. Apparently you can sometimes leave out neat bags of paper recycling to be picked up, but I have never seen trash left outside on the sidewalk. One night after a football rally in Santa Croce square, where hundreds of people were drinking outside, I saw bottles and cans left on benches, gone by the next morning. Trash doesn’t automatically disappear here. You have to walk it out and dispose of it. Then you wash the sidewalk in front of your apartment. Thousands of years of tiny acts keep it all clean. It’s different.
Florence makes things. It hand sews leather and makes book bindings. It still gilds things and makes silk, then fabric, then handmade dresses from the fabric. It’s a busy place with a frenetic energy, probably the least relaxed place in Italy I’ve ever been. It’s been cosmopolitan for 800 years and it shows. I look in shop windows and people are sewing, gilding, cutting, printmaking. It’s all still happening. The hands of Florence are always moving, often making something beautiful or decorative. Or delicious.
We view original art to have a hidden moment with it, intimacy. Like Venus, patron of art, we want to have a relationship, a love affair, something personal. Botticelli was the high point for me. The chance to see so much of his work in the Uffizi was a revelation. Heresy: I like Botticelli better than Leonardo. Leonardo was a techie; Botticelli was a mystic. I write here my own discoveries from looking at the originals. This is an art geek post, so be forewarned. I don’t know if my revelations are unique, but at least they are mine.
There is movement everywhere in a Botticelli painting, but in the atmosphere. The roses are floating down, her shell boat is literally floating in on the tide, washed in on the foam. Venus was “foam born” and if you look at the veils of wave at the bottom of the shell you can see the shell moving. Botticelli mixed alabaster with tempera to add a light pastel opacity to the painting. The sea, with its little waves, has the color and flatness of maps; he was good friends with the explorer Amerigo Vespucci and the families lived close to each other, so I regard the flat sea as another visual pun. Every part of nature is flowing, waving, alive. This reminds me of the movies of Ridley Scott, who often has snow, ashes or petals drifting down, especially in epic scenes.
I found out that Botticelli had probably been trained as a goldsmith after looking at the gilding used as a painterly element. In Venus, the whole atmosphere is that of dawn, and he using stripes of gold on his orange tree trunks— the oranges in bloom with their sweet blossoms to add a ghost of fragrance to the work—reflects that. He uses arcs of gold on the pebbles of the earth bank on the right, where Venus is about to step off. The shell casts a long dawn shadow.
There’s a real joy in nature in the paintings. I loved seeing the nearly invisible wild iris in the corner of the Spring painting. And there are visual jokes: in Venus, the Wind is blowing a spume at her… just like the Annunciations, with their lines connecting the angel and Mary. He’s fecundating her. Microscopically fine veils show lines of energy, light moving in waves, and connect visual elements. The veils are like starlight made tangible. About the gilding… I had not seen it used like this, on simple trunks and little pebbles, anywhere else. I saw it used only for halos and sometimes on fabric ornamentation on the Virgin’s robe. Using the gilding on trees and rocks instead of halos makes nature holy. More encoded visual puns!
I ended up spending more time with the Allegory of Spring. It’s just such an interesting painting. There never seems to be much that’s formulaic in these works. I was alone for a time with the painting; that might not ever happen again.
The leaves overhead are oranges, and Mercury seems to be poking down an orange to eat with his caduceus. Mercury loves to steal things. It is very human. I think Mercury might be Botticelli. His paintings are witty. They have humor.
I can’t say much about the Renaissance, but it was not about the invention of three-point perspective; that’s technology embodied. It’s in the mixing of cultures and the breaking of worn-out molds that the good stuff happens, the brief blooms, like the sixties. Botticelli broke the musty war-and-religion genres of the time with his loud paganism. It’s easy to think that these smooth faces are inventions, but I saw this museum visitor in the Map Room and I thought, oh, a Botticelli face. You think that this radiance is a painterly trope, but then there was this guy walking by. I snapped a stealth photo.
What if Botticelli was your interior designer? This wall painting was moved intact from someone’s house. Interesting to see a Botticelli with earthier colors because the medium was different. I had not seen this one before. I would lay odds that the background in the painting reflected the actual background of the loggia, vineyard, and setting of the patron’s house.
More green squiggle marks behind him in another Uffizi painting
Movement, bringing real nature into painting, and starlight made visible. And the faces, and the wit. That’s my Botticelli, the one I met in person through the originals. We might need him again as our world turns back into increasing darkness.
Non perfume-people, you have to read through this this to get to the pig! This place is pure magic. You enter through cascades and garlands of flowers. I am already enchanted, walking in a dream through clouds of scent. It was formerly a 12th century church, so that’s a nice storefront. Inside, women wander with looks of bliss and men with looks of discomfort— except the Italian men. I will generalize here. Italian men are comfortable with animated shopping for fashion, shoes, perfume. They’re well trained; after all, this place has been open 800 years. It was originally a hospital, where the monks gave you cures: rose water against the plague and so on. And then they made the perfume for Catherine of Medici, Queen of France. Through her, perfume was introduced to the French Court in 1533. Yes, Italy invented perfume as we know it! I have a small sample of that perfume. Whooof!
The scents are strong; they are based on the herbs, the monks’ noses, and hygiene needs of the past. It’s a three part process to choose. You sniff the perfumes you like in the funnels, then get them spritzed on cards. If you still like them, you choose one only to have applied to your wrist by a young, beautiful Italian woman. It took me over an hour. Reader, I bought one. They smell very unusual, and the cologne lingers as long as a modern perfume would.
After all this ethereal scented beauty, I decided to visit a famous pig. Pork is big in this city; it’s a meat heavy cuisine. I am not going to try the Florentine beef steak. I am always let down by European steak. Yes, even the French kind. I grew up in Western cattle country. You call that a steak? It’s like me being proud of my pasta. An Italian might have a few things to say. Giant sides of beef and pork hang in windows.
Il Porcellino eats the coins of visitors who rub his snout for luck. Forget all about the art treasures of the Western world. The Boar is where it’s at. Pietro Tacca, 1654, sculpted the original, but no one remembers him; the artifact eclipses the artist. It’s magic, hilarious and a very fine sculpture. I didn’t feed him a coin, but I might before I go. I did rub his golden snout. The place is thronged. People are laughing and screaming with joy. The coin drops from his open mouth either into a little grate (desirable and lucky) or to one side (not as lucky but hey you tried).
The sculpture is excellent and I enjoyed it. It was easy to enjoy the beautiful swampy base filled with snakes, frogs and toads. I have noticed this about painting and sculpture. We only get screwed up when it comes to humans. People have always made naturalistic, gorgeous animals, birds and plants, no matter what the religious and aesthetic dictates of the time. Even the Egyptians made perfectly accurate bird and animal paintings when freed from having to make the pharaoh and his god-court in a certain sideways style. We marvel at Donatello, who, gasp, made the first naked guy statue since the Greeks, un-damming the flood of Naked Guy Statues. But animals have always been pure and vigorous, and joyful.
Florence forbids selfie sticks in museums. I don’t own one anyway, but I am starting a self portrait series all in reflections: mirrors, glass, windows, shelves. Viewing centuries of portraits, I want to make a few of my own. Because of this cruel restriction on self-documentation, some enterprising soul has started a Selfie Museum, where all you do is take selfies.
My head is in a spinning vortex of art. I am thinking all the time as I view, and it really makes me dizzy. My next blog post will have some of my ideas as an artist on all the art I’m seeing, and some thoughts on ancient art, the Renaissance, and Italian modernism, but for now I ‘m just sticking my toe in the water. I have now been to the Uffizi, Pitti Palace, the Novocento Museum of Modern Art, the Archeological Museum. I’m falling behind on my churches.
I found I really like the Pitti Palace, and the Uffizi. The Uffizi is completely beautiful in its gallery rooms, clean and modern, with 19th century corridors that access the modern rooms. I’ll get serious about the art later. In the Pitti Palace, it’s the old ways. The pile up of paintings creates a deep scrapbook or collage effect. The paintings talk to each other. Often it just gives you visual indigestion, but really, paintings love to be with other paintings. Painting loves sculpture and vice versa. From the Uffizi corridor, or connecting hallway, I viewed sculpture with paintings hanging above, and these irreverent, collage-type thoughts entered my head.
Speaking of pool boys, this city is chock full of naked guy sculptures. I was going to head up a blog post with that, but thought I might get censored. My friend Kalia said that she sort of got “Virgin toxic overload” in Florence. I am experiencing Naked Guys overload. I haven’t even been to see the famous David. I figure 25 smaller naked guys might equal one David. I thought of doing a series called “Florence as Seen Through the legs of Naked Guys,” but soon abandoned it because it was too easy. I did get a few photos, though.
The Uffizi is like an art book came to life. As an artist, you enter a wonderland— down the rabbit hole. I am going three times, so I’ll focus on it later. I got there really early in the morning, for the 8:15 AM opening; you need reservations and advance tickets. I managed to sprint ahead to a few rooms for near-solo time with the Botticellis. The sun rises past 7:30 here so here’s what you see at dawn outside the Uffizi.
For now, I offer you a candy box of paintings from the Uffizi. See any old favorites? Don’t eat too many. I am making light of this because I feel dizzy all the time, close to laughing or crying. It’s my messed up sleep schedule combined with art flooding and the uncertainty of travel. It’s like I have to be two or three people because I’m alone, if that makes any sense. What a garden of delights. Florence is a treasure house, guarded by the curled and sleeping dragon of jet lag, and the weight of centuries of genius. I’m trying to snatch a coin or jewel from the lair.
I have arrived. Travel is related to art; both involve living on the edge of cliffs. The more you don’t know, the more exciting it is, for better or worse. Lurching into Amerigo Vespucci airport after 3 flights, I felt that molasses-like buzz of jet lag, exhaustion, and stress sweat. It was 16 hours of wearing a mask on Iberia air, which still requires masking in the plane, and my nose and throat were sore from rebreathing my mask air. It was night and there was a long line for taxis outside. I was having credit card problems that concerned me— would I be able to get cash? (More on this later.) And I was traveling alone, so no one was there to share the decision-making burden.
It all started to go right for me when I decided to take the T2 tram into the center instead of depending on the taxi to deliver me to the door. I had small luggage and was mobile, so I could walk to my place from the end of the tram line. Feeling lost, I did a travel trick and picked out an appealing stranger to follow. He was a chubby, friendly man carrying a musical instrument and he was heading toward the tram. He helped me buy a ticket— turns out he was English and I had no idea. He laughed when I told him I followed him. I was able to give him some advice as well. These “angels” are everywhere, but it involves giving up control, using your intuition, and asking for help.
Immediately, I was in lovely laughing Italy. The door closed and the car filled with people talking, singing, shouting, living. I was out of the commercial tunnel of air travel at last. At the end of the line I walked out with my little rolling bag and small purse pack into this scene. Sometimes you have to give up control, then a “flow” starts, and you are in the place, not thinking about it or struggling with it. Do you know what I mean?
This psychedelic setting encouraged me— it was like wandering through a dream. Vendors were shooting luminous fairy lights high into the air and they drifted down the sides of the green and white fantasy cathedral like wired angels. I arrived at my studio apartment, my little refuge for my time here.
My guardian spirit for this trip is Dante. He is everywhere in Florence, so that’s nice for me, because I want to be everywhere in Florence. I am collecting Dante images. The church of Santa Croce, where the young lovers in E.M. Forster’s “Room with a View” met, is steps away, along with Dante and Very Big Kitties. It was just a brand new suburban development when Dante was in town.
The credit card fiasco? I figured it out, but here is your travel tip, Americans… know your credit card 4-digit PIN numbers. No, not your debit card PIN which you use all the time, the ones for your credit cards. No, not your 3-digit secret code which you also use all the time. Scott had to wire me cash with Western Union, which made me feel like I was a teenage backpacker. Even then, I never had money wired to me! The credit cards are fine now, but for the first time in years I am walking around with strange cash in my wallet. On the travel edge, again. It’s beautiful to have cash. The Euro is now the same as the dollar. This lunch “menu of the day” , written on a blackboard in a neighborhood bar, cost me 16.5 Euro/bucks total: salmon, fennel, glass of white wine, bread, espresso and small dessert. 1 Euro tip. Paradise, with some sword-and-cliff edges to get there.
If you want to read more travel writing, and more of the Over Underworld sketch/myth series, simply scroll down, and feel free to comment here, right on the blog, or in all the social media things. It’s nice to know that people are reading!
We are camping at the remote California Mission San Antonio de Padua, amid the oaks and a huge and noisy flock of acorn woodpeckers. Pleasant little knocking sounds, like tiny bamboo drums, come from all directions as they work. This Mission is set in a small pocket of space completely surrounded by the Hunter-Leggett military base. Each morning Reveille, the bugle call, echoes over the speakers, bounces among the foothills, and is answered by the howls and yips of coyotes.
It’s a stark mission, the third one founded after Monterey and San Diego. By the 1930’s it was in ruins, then slowly brought back. There is still an air of privation. Several Padres died of starvation; early California was hard. I walk around picking leaves from the Original Grapevine, Original Pomegranate, and an Original Olive, perhaps 250 years old. One of the women in our camping party has us making cyanotypes.
This Mission is near Jolon, CA and is open to the public. You can rent rooms and stay the night, but must bring all your own food. The power can be dicey and the cellular/internet is controlled by the military base, which means odd outages and censorship. I could read The NY Times, but couldn’t watch my Best of Late Night video clips of political satire. Hmmm…
The stark surroundings make you appreciate the beauty of simple things, like a pomegranate cold from the fridge. It’s a bit ghostly here. Indigenous people died; the church with its crucifixes of tormented, sad, Jesus did not provide much relief from suffering.
Only the fruit and the women provided a bit of joy; I mean of course the Virgins, with their compassion. The Refectory remains cool all day behind 3 foot thick adobe walls, natural climate control.
Scott does a demonstration on tire repair to the group which involves punching holes in tires and party balloons inflated at various levels to show how “airing down”— deflating your tires before desert off road travel— can help avoid a flat. The theme of the presentations is survival, and, set in the heat among the “beware of snakes” signs, seems to highlight the stark beauty of the dry oak forest. The mission has warnings inside each door to close it to prevent “uninvited visitors” like tarantulas and rattlesnakes.
I’m off to the lush churches of Europe soon. Seeing this place reminds me of how much of a New World California really was.
I stopped blog writing during Covid. The next blog down from this one plunges you right back into Dante’s underworld, so watch your step— the fall is a long one. The pandemic, combined with the rise of authoritarian regimes at home and abroad, pretty much gutted me. How to paint out of that?
But I did, though the paintings had a new tone. Artists are, for the most part, relentlessly critical of our work. It comes out of us, everyone sees it and judges it in some way or another, and thus it is very fraught to create, which is why most people don’t do it. For this recent open studio, I decided to turn criticism aside and simply like my own work, give the paintings something from myself that was not finding errors or ways of improvement.
This painting has an obscuring grey mist or fog, but bits of gold peek through, and rose is trying to emerge in some places. There is a feeling of falling down and rising up simultaneously— a cycle of life— and the green has a fresh feeling, though in a field of ash. It’s always a bit dangerous to “read” abstraction, because everyone has to come to their own terms with it. But a true painting can speak volumes, and I decided to let my own work speak to me with a new voice. As an abstract artist, “zombie formalism” can be tempting… the splash of paint, the pleasant color— but devoid of personal meaning to the artist, thus the zombie part… neither alive nor dead. And zombie paintings can’t speak.
I struggle sometimes to find inspiration in my own work and life. Look around, I say to myself. Eat a fig from your tree that the raccoons didn’t. Let your own creations give you a little love back. It feels good.
What do we want most when we are traveling through an Underworld? One ill-fated goal is to rescue another who is stuck to bring them back from Death, never a good idea: the Monkey’s Paw effect. Better is to journey toward a happy ending, reuniting with our loved ones or God. This was Dante’s goal. Another favorite hope, a subset of reuniting with loved ones, is to be in ecstasy all the time, eating and drinking and making love and giggling– to get high. The goals of the Underworld are actually in alignment with the goals of Comedy, not Tragedy: it should end with a reunion or party with loved ones, and you should be able to get drunk, maybe listen to some really good music…
I made these drawings in the Getty Villa’s Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife exhibit. One thing that tickled me the most was Plato’s disdain for those who only wanted to go to the Underworld to drink wine. There apparently was a cult devoted just to that. As a citizen of perhaps one of the most hedonistic places on the planet, Sonoma County, California, where wine, weed, and fine food are elevated to a religion, I understand.
Plato loved wine, but was careful. He even proposed the first age-related drinking laws: that boys should not drink before age 18, because it is wrong to add “fire to fire.” But he was careful not to elevate wine, preferring to use it as a tool for truth and celebration. He said that to spend all our time in the afterlife “crowned and drunk” was dumb, that eternal inebriation was an unworthy goal for the Underworld. Many of the Underworld themed wine vessels had phallic grape bunches, implying that there was even more bliss available Down There.
In this time of quarantine and apocalyptic thoughts, I can’t help but remember the rat banquet scene in the Werner Herzog film Nosferatu. The people are feasting and dancing in the square in a sea of rats, because they know that they are about to die. In our world, this is a good metaphor for substance addiction; unable to stop as a world falls apart. Dark.
Is it so wrong to imagine that some of life’s fundamental pleasures might be available after death? I wish you surcease of sorrows, but in non-apocalyptic quantity that does not wreck your world. Or your morning. It’s a slippery slope.
From Plato to you, as you sip your Quarantini 2,368 years later: “What is better adapted than the festive use of wine in the first place to test and in the second place to train the character of a man, if care be taken in the use of it? What is there cheaper or more innocent?”
Here I am with my quarantini and pearls, sans rats. Here’s to all of us. And from Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” —Suzanne
This is the eighth Over Underworld release, a online art exhibit of paintings and sketches in March and April 2020. Featured art: Sketches from Dante’s Inferno Illustrated Notes. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.